From Listening to Learning: The Student-Led Classroom

 minute read

As a prior educator and teacher, I’ve watched my peers find themselves trying to problem-solve ways to keep students’ interest and attention in the classroom. Cultural phenomena and trends present difficulties for teachers in the classroom. Within teacher communities on Facebook and blog posts published across the internet, the desperation of teachers can be felt and heard. Many feel like screen time is diminishing a child’s ability to focus and pay attention. Others feel like YouTube videos create child zombies who sit and stare at screens for hours at home. 

One teacher in a Facebook group asks, “What do you do in your classroom to keep students’ attention?” Some mention being animated during lessons to capture their attention (which sounds exhausting if this is the expectation for an entire school day). Others say that they go as far as standing on tables randomly to switch it up. Some change their volume, going from being obnoxiously loud to, all of a sudden, soft-spoken, almost whispery. 

Not that these strategies are wrong... They just sound draining. There has to be a better way to capture and keep students’ attention and interest in school. The strategies that desperate teachers use above are short-lived attention grabs and externally motivated. So, how can we shift the focus from external to internal or intrinsic motivation? What are the goals for students? Do we want them to be good listeners who can sit “crisscross applesauce”? 

How can we replace the tap-dancing, singing teacher aiming to spark an interest about critical historical events with deeply curious students ready to learn about history? The answer sounds simple but will take some courage and practice from the educator. A student-led classroom will ignite passions, create buy-in, and turn unmotivated students into students who we read about 20 years from now who will create the next big invention that will change life as we know it. We have future generations sitting in our classrooms. That may seem scary, but it is extremely exciting. Just like Dr. Seuss's book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” focuses on the journeys children take throughout their lives, we can help students find the spark that lights their fire.

Sounds incredible, right? So, what can we do as educators, parents, and guides to help foster curious children? For starters, we can shift our thinking about the roles we play in their lives. Let’s let our hair down and start the rewarding work of creating thinkers, questioners, explorers, and world-changers. Historically and traditionally, classrooms have been teacher-led, where students play a less active part in their learning, typically sitting and listening to lectures and answering questions as the teacher asks them. I challenge you to flip that narrative and allow the student to drive those questions and actively create lessons. 

In a traditional classroom, you may see learning objectives neatly written on the whiteboard with an agenda nearby that outlines the day for students. Let’s allow students to write those learning objectives. If we want them to care about history, for example, let’s present it in a way that allows students the opportunity to learn in a way that is authentic and engaging for them. Let’s allow them to present their learning in a way that ensures accountability but also is true to them and their talents or the ways they learn best. Multiple-choice questions do not just measure learning. Speeches, projects, poster-board presentations, art, plays, and more can measure it better. 

Here are some simple, actionable steps to developing deeply curious students in a student-led learning environment:

  1. Ask students, “What questions do you have about the world around you?” Give each student sticky notes and allow them to write a question on each one. If you have littles who can’t write, let them say their question and write for them. Invite students to place sticky notes on the board and step back to see the fantastic learning opportunities in front of them!
  2. Ask, “What things would you like to learn about” or “What skills would you like to learn how to do?”
  3. Link learning to careers, jobs, and, more importantly, purposes. For example, students may have a limited amount of buy-in when learning how to count coins and dollar bills, but if we help them connect this learning experience to real life by creating a purpose, they can be more deeply invested. We might say, “When will I use this in life?” or “Why would we need to learn to count money?” Students will flood you with stories about when they saw their parents or guardians host a garage sale and saw people pay with dollar bills and coins, and change was given. Or the time that they saw their parents counting their cash at the grocery store to pay for their groceries. Turn those life experiences into a purpose like “I want to count money so that I can buy things at the grocery store” or “I want to count money so that I can run my lemonade stand.” Oh, the exciting possibilities that these conversations will create!
  4. Embrace the mistakes and errors. Having a growth mindset is crucial to create confident learners and people. Model how you make mistakes and how that’s okay. We spell words wrong sometimes, and we count incorrectly sometimes. Humans are not perfect; we should not expect perfection from our students every day. 
  5. Revisit your “classroom rules” and see how to build “classroom norms” together. It is very easy for us to create rules for students to follow. But if they actively create our community expectations, they are more deeply invested in following them. This doesn’t happen in one day. You can ask guiding questions like “when you come to school, how do you want to feel in class and school?” When they answer with things like “I want to feel safe,” flip that around and ask, “How can we ensure we have a safe classroom where everyone here feels comfortable?” Add the ideas to your community or classroom norms. Revisit these often to reinforce “norms” and even change or tweak them as needed. 
  6. When starting a new lesson, present the topic in a way that piques students’ curiosity and has them ask questions. For example, when teaching about Black History Month, print out images representing major events and people that paved the way for Black Americans. Spread them across your room and have students take a photo walk. Events may include Rosa Parks sitting on a bus, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  March on Washington, and his “I Have a Dream” speech. These images will spark questions, evoke emotions, and help create a pathway for learning for the day and/or week.  
  7. Ask students on Day 1 of their learning, “What can you do to show your learning by the end of this unit or week?” Have them develop projects they’d like to create or ways they want to show what they’ve learned. 
  8. Lead with relationships. Students want to be liked by their teachers, and they want to like their teachers. Be vulnerable, be available, and be understanding. It won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it, and it will open up a world of possibilities. 

Try these ideas! And let us know how they work! We can’t wait for you to ignite your learners' curiosity while inviting them to partake in student-led learning opportunities. Help us foster life-long learners who are deep thinkers. Give students meaningful learning opportunities while playing active parts in their learning. And give yourself some grace on this journey.

Oh, the places you will go!

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